Not long ago, I was a high school student who had assigned readings. Some novels I loved, some I hated, and many I’d forgotten about. However, four years after I read Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening in the twelfth grade, the piece of literature once again crossed my mind.
The novel is about a young mother and wife, married into upper-class Louisiana Creole society, and her struggle to exist within said society as she yearns for sexual freedom, passion, purpose, and agency. The novel explores Edna’s desire to live as her authentic self beyond the confines of “true womanhood.”
One would think, given my then and still present love of period fiction, that I’d deeply enjoy the novel. However, my first read didn’t interest or intrigue, nor did it seem to offer core plot points or themes. Perhaps it was a symptom of my then unmedicated ADHD, but my time with The Awakening produced little to no critical take-aways or realizations. My head was empty, no thoughts.
As someone who loves to observe the messy and scandalous, however, I naturally remembered Edna, the main character cheating on her husband fairly consistently. In high school, I’d maintained an oddly moralistic view of Edna’s decisions, while feeling only a few ounces of pity. I thought, sure, her husband only saw and respected her as a mother and homemaker while she navigated the terrains of Creole society — that's depressing, I guess, but it's no excuse to neglect your children and marriage, or to off yourself after your lover rejects any further advances.
As a college student, however, I started reconsidering my formerly judgmental view of Edna. So out of my newfound curiosity and with ample waiting time between spring break airports and flights, I re-read the book.
After my second read, I finally grasped the feminist subtext of the novel and found it within myself to empathize with the main character and her desires, motivations, and choices. Turns out, The Awakening is an early feminist text (which everyone likely knew except me) and a profoundly beautiful one at that. Kate Chopin outdid herself with her detailed, formal prose that reads like an impressionist painting.
I partially owe my sudden shift of opinion regarding the text and the main character to the gift of age and a university education focused on literature, history, and all things women, gender, and sexuality. However, my newfound perspective, understanding, and relation to the novel also hails from and remains personally enmeshed with my identity as a woman, and closer proximity to motherhood and gendered relationship expectations as I age.
My identification with Edna starts and stops with us being women.
I am not a white, wealthy upper-class white woman during late 19th century Louisiana Creole society. Yet upon my revisit to the text I found myself experiencing a moving comprehension of the essence of Edna’s yearning for more. Edna refused to rest in her unfulfillment or banish herself to a lifetime of unfulfilled desire. I’ve had candid conversations with various women within my life in the four years since my initial read. These conversations shared the intricacies of various personal experiences regarding motherhood, marriage, and relationships.
One conversation with an older family member in particular made me especially privy to how the window to personal self-discovery, fulfillment, and independence as a woman can go from being open, to slightly ajar, to being closed for a woman, given certain social and cultural circumstances regarding marriage. Through those conversations and my own personal experiences as a young adult I’ve developed a naturalized understanding of the specific joys and collective struggles many women face when it comes to seeking fulfillment, not as just a woman but as a human being.
Edna’s restlessness with her marriage and family does not make her necessarily a bad wife and mother - they make her human.
Upon my re-read I also realized her emotions towards her children weren’t as polarized as I had last imagined. Edna is not the perfect “mother woman” like her friend Adele Ratigonelle, who serves as a character foil. Adele seamlessly adores her children, husband, and role as a mother-wife. Towards the end of the novel Edna attends Adele’s labor. Here Edna bemoans the trouble of childbirth and becomes annoyed with Adele’s lucid cries of pain. All of which remains an experience Edna cannot empathize with, since she was drugged for the duration of her labor and retained little memory of her children’s births.Through this experience with Adele, Edna realizes the depth of love she has for her children, and to her own feelings about the incredible feat of childbirth. Recognition of her selfishness doesn’t lead to Edna’s fervent devotion to her home and family, but rather, it demonstrates her self-awareness and growth.
I don’t want to canonize Edna and pretend that all her actions were perfectly justifiable and moral - not all of them were. Her cheating on her husband–whose worst crime was being kind of old, criminally unstimulating, and traditional–was definitely a choice. However, being mad at your lover for admitting guilt about having an affair with the married spouse of a man he knows is again, a choice. To err is to be human, but intentional defiance in society that relies on conformity – that's commendable.
The Awakening remains an important early feminist literary text that should be culturally revisited as it depicts just how damn boring it is to be confined to the domestic sphere out of social and cultural expectations.
In the wake of current discourse surrounding the stay-at-home girlfriend, trad-wife, and “I don’t dream of labor” phenomena across many prominent social media platforms amongst women, this depiction is needed.
The idea that feminism has somehow failed modern women and the only way to mitigate structural and policy issues is to abandon the freedoms so many women dreamed of and fought for, by returning solely to the role of mother and homemaker – is well, a choice.
I don’t like the idea of working any more than the next girl, but I also like being able to have my own bank account. The Awakening reminds us how unfilling the confines of domestic life can be if that is all one is confined to. Subverting those expectations in a bid for self-exploration can be liberating but also not without consequence.
The novel doesn't have a happy ending. Edna decides to commit suicide by walking into the Gulf of Mexico at Grand Isle after Robert refuses to continue their affair. Her suicide also follows her conclusion that because she loves her children so much, ultimately she cannot fulfill the role of mother. To many Edna’s suicide reads as a successful escape away from the confines of womanhood that further demonstrates her agency. Others view it as an act of desperation that neither provided her with more freedom nor did anything to protect or console her children and loved ones.
Regardless of what her suicide could mean regarding the success of her awakening and personal agency, after my second time with the book, I, too, have found myself, in a sense, awakened.